I’m sitting here watching the data roll in and the number of donors climb in our current research study. As of this moment, 21,613 Americans have told us about the effect that the economic crisis has had on them so far and, as a result, what will happen to their philanthropy in 2009. As I scroll through the data and scan more than 12,000 additional comments, I am simultaneously fascinated and frustrated.
I’m fascinated by the number of donors who have taken the time to join this study and by their important information and thoughtful comments. But I’m frustrated, too. Yet again, over-solicitation tops the list of donors’ concerns and feeds heavily into their decisions about who they will support this year and how much they will give.
Donors’ Concern Is Growing
The first time I documented the statistical impact of over-solicitation was in 2000 when I published my company’s research study on why donors stay loyal or stop giving. By 2003, when the second national study on the subject was published, over-solicitation had become the second most prevalent reason why donors stopped giving or gave less than they could. (The first was “lack of measurable results on donors gifts-at-work.”) But while our independent and client-based research and testing have consistently shown that profitability rises when donors’ two main complaints are addressed, over-solicitation still remains rampant throughout the fundraising industry.
Why is that, and will this issue ever be dealt with to donors’ satisfaction? I sure hope so because if you think donors’ giving patterns and preferences have been changing in the past few years, wait till you see what’s coming. In our current survey, over-solicitation is scoring much higher than anything else for its ability to negatively impact donors’ giving decisions.
Who Is Responsible for the Problem of Over-Solicitation?
I think that the solution to over-solicitation is right under our noses, but because it’s counter to ingrained fundraising thinking, it’s not getting serious attention. Donors are experiencing over-solicitation in direct marketing appeals, and those appeals emanate from two sources — internal direct marketing operations inside not-for-profit development offices, and external direct marketing suppliers servicing the fundraising industry. So, is over-solicitation the fault of direct marketing staff and suppliers, then? No, it’s not that simple.
When managers and budget-setters require direct marketing to do something it is not designed for — ie, make a profit — direct marketing staff are forced to take a program designed only for acquisition and use it for retention.
Donors Think Like Investors
Direct marketing programs are excellent at getting donors to start giving…and soon thereafter, equally excellent at getting donors to stop. That’s because donors who have invested in not for profits think in terms of “return on investment” when deciding whether or not to give again. And, it’s easy for donors see the value of their initial investment reduced and then wiped out as the parade of follow up appeals with multiple inserts and token gifts keeps coming.
What managers should be asking their direct marketing staff to do is acquire a reasonable number of donors at any one time, solidify their loyalty, and move them “upstairs” as quickly as possible. Solidifying their loyalty means giving them measurable results on their last gift before asking for another one, and not over-soliciting. Leave the profit-making to the major and planned gifts officers. They’re much better at it because they’re working with programs that are designed for profit, not volume.
Are We Paying Suppliers for the Wrong Thing?
It’s a version of the same thinking for external suppliers. They get an awfully bad rap for aggressive solicitation techniques, but a quick glance at their contracts will show you that they are not wholly to blame. They are paid for activity, not for results. The more appeals they execute, the more money they make; the more pieces and trinkets they produce, the more they can charge. But, what if NFP managers paid suppliers to retain donors instead of contracting for volume. Overnight, aggressive solicitation would be replaced with meaningful communication on gifts at work, because that would be the only way to boost donor retention. And, just like that, the problem would be solved.
Donors Are in Charge
In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, 116 more donors have completed our survey on the impact of the economy on their philanthropy. 47 of them made references to over-solicitation. We’re going to close down this survey tonight. But even before we start analyzing the results, I already know one thing — the days of fundraisers as the gatekeepers of philanthropy are over. Donors are in charge now, and they are making independent and provocative decisions about who they will support and how much they will give based on whether or not charities address their growing concerns; and at the top of their list is over-solicitation.
Stay tuned for the results…and fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride.
 Thanks, A Guide to Donor-Centred Fundraising (Canada, 2000)
 Donor-Centered Fundraising (United States, 2003)